PORTLAND – The first-graders in Kristina Hewey’s class at East End Community School quickly found their assigned seats Thursday morning, the first day of school.

After coloring their new name tags and putting them in a basket, they went to the sink to wash their hands. On the way back to their seats, they stopped at a white laundry basket filled with individual servings of milk, graham crackers, sun butter and juice, grabbing one of each.

Providing free breakfast to students is a growing trend in Portland schools. It started at Reiche Elementary School five years ago, and this year about 2,070 students at five schools will get free breakfast. School officials are talking about providing it for all 7,000 Portland students within a few years.

Typically, students qualify for free breakfast based on low family income. But now, all students — regardless of family income — will be offered free breakfast with low-sugar cereal, pastries, breakfast bars and juice at Reiche Elementary, East End Community, Riverton Elementary, Presumpscot Elementary and Lincoln Middle schools.

The expansion isn’t costing Portland property taxpayers a dime, because the federal reimbursement for each qualifying meal exceeds the district’s cost to provide it. The district can use the extra money to provide meals to more students.

Proponents of the program say a good breakfast helps students perform better academically, physically and socially, and removes the stigma that free meals are only for poor kids.

The goal, says Food Service Director Ron Adams, is to provide free breakfast to all students within two years.

“When you have a high free and reduced (price meal) population that is at-risk for food insecurity, you have got to do everything you can to make sure kids have access to food,” Adams said.

Students don’t have to choose between morning recess and the free breakfast, as they have in the past.

With food offered in the classroom during the first 10 minutes of instruction time, students can still get exercise at morning recess.

“It makes everything work a lot better,” Adams said. “It works out for me financially. It works out for the teachers for attention span, and it works out for the kids who may not have eaten much.”

Nearly 54 percent of Portland students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, according to the Maine Department of Education. For any school that’s above 50 percent, it makes sense to consider a free breakfast program for all students, Adams said.

Marcia Gendron, the former principal at Reiche Elementary, is credited with starting the program at East End Elementary when she became the school’s principal two years ago.

“It’s cost-effective and it’s a great investment for learning,” Gendron said. “Kids started coming to school with a positive attitude.”

Adding Presumpscot and Lincoln to the program will add about $36,000 in food and supply costs, Adams said. But the $675,000 reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for free and reduced-price breakfasts is enough to cover the cost, he said.

Breakfast costs the district $1.03 a meal. The USDA’s reimbursement is $1.85 for meals served to students who qualify for free breakfast, $1.55 for students who qualify for reduced-price breakfast, and 27 cents for students who pay full price.

Adams said the district’s large number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals allows it to expand its program at no cost to local taxpayers.

Burlington, Vt., began offering free breakfast to all of its students in 2000, said Doug Davis, Burlington’s director of food services.

Like Portland, Burlington is a popular resettlement community for immigrants, he said, so many students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Within a few years, Davis said, Burlington expanded its program to offer free breakfast to 4,000 students in the district and offer lunch and dinner at several schools with high poverty rates.

“Now, it’s part of the fabric of what we do,” Davis said. “We feed our kids.”

Universal free breakfast isn’t common among Maine’s public schools. But a growing number of public schools are seeing its benefits, said Walter Beesley, school nutrition specialist with the Maine Department of Education.

“They’re looking at the economy,” Beesley said of districts that offer the program.

Free breakfast programs reduce administrative costs because employees aren’t needed to collect money, he said, and as more meals and products are purchased, the per-meal cost goes down.

Meanwhile, students behave and learn better, Beesley said. “It’s a no-lose situation.”

Other districts in Maine that offer universal free breakfast include Regional School Unit 3 in Unity, RSU 12 in Sheepscot Valley, Auburn and Winthrop.

Cherie Merrill was the school nutrition director in RSU 3 for six years before taking a similar job in Winthrop. She started RSU 3’s universal free breakfast program in 2006.

“We brought it here (to Winthrop) because of the benefit we saw,” she said. “It puts the kids on the right track in the morning.”

Merrill said RSU 3’s program is funded entirely through USDA reimbursements, because about 70 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In Winthrop, only 36 percent of the students qualify.

Still, by increasing participation in the free breakfast program, the Winthrop school district is able to reduce the additional funding sought from the town, from $130,000 this year to $100,000, Merrill said.

“We’re trying to turn that around and be self-sufficient,” she said.

Schools in Maine’s unorganized territories and Indian reservations offer all of their students free breakfast and lunch, funded through the USDA reimbursement, Beesley said.

It’s something that more school districts would like to do, but the margins for lunches are tighter. In Portland, lunch costs the district $3.68 a meal, and the USDA reimbursement tops out at $2.86.

Adams said Reiche, where nearly 72 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, is starting a universal free lunch program this year as a pilot project.

“We’ll know at the end of the year, but it looks like it will work,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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Twitter: @randybillings